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Transforming career technical education (Part 1): Creating a flexible innovation zone

January 02, 2018

By Theo Pappas

Turning a vocational skills institute into a career incubator required changing the program and the image—and creating a hyper-flexible space

There’s been a lot of talk about re-envisioning career technical education, but what does this mean for high schools themselves? What is going to make it possible for students to get the tools and training they need to succeed right out of high school? In today’s push for CTE (Career and Technical Education), the goal is to ensure that students, whether they choose to continue their studies or not, are immediately employable and can directly enter the workforce after graduation.

So, the question becomes what does a school need to give its students those marketable skills, actual certifications, and college credits?

The Genesee Career Institute near Flint, Michigan, is a 113,000-square-foot facility with next-gen learning spaces.

Recently, in Genesee County, near Flint, Michigan, I had the opportunity to work on creating a CTE building program and design from top to bottom in every sense. On paper, the project at Genesee Career Institute (GCI) was challenging enough, converting a non-descript single-story structure into a center for innovation, career and technical education—all while it remained operational. But it was about more than that.

We developed active learning and progressive spaces, a sea change from their previous approach. This transformation required an overhaul of the program at the school, with the addition of hands-on training such as a Visual Digital Communications Program where students design and create branding and graphics for real companies and an automotive lab. It also meant reorienting the image of the institution, from that of a vocational school to a career institute, communicating that students are being educated for and guided to roles in local businesses and institutions.

We designed areas such as a Digital Media Arts production studio and editing lab for communications study and an advanced STEM lab to support a pre-engineering curriculum.

The new educational program required specialized spaces. We designed areas such as a Digital Media Arts production studio and editing lab for communications study and an advanced STEM lab to support a pre-engineering curriculum. We supplanted these with multiple Active Learning areas optimized for various modes of student teaming and project-based learning. But we discovered that we needed more. Much more.

Over a two-month period, we observed, programmed, and master planned the space. In meeting with the school program staff, we learned of diverse needs for space. Health science wanted an auditorium that could hold 400 learners enrolled in the program, the STEM program needed a space for students to practice robotics, and the administration needed more space for large scale meetings.

The Innovation Zone at the Genesee Career Institute is a flexible 8,700-square-foot space.

The Innovation Zone is born

This transformation into 21st century CTE requires space to accommodate 27 functions—from lecture to competition and seminars. Flexible, adaptable space is becoming requisite in CTE. Knowing this, and with the needs of the stakeholders at Genesee in mind, we came up with a concept called the Innovation Zone.

At Genesee, the central feature is the Innovation Zone, an 8,700-square-foot addition between the building’s north and south wings, filling in a space that had once been a disused courtyard. The Innovation Zone is designed to be a flexible space to accommodate a variety of activities and gathering sizes throughout the day. A series of movable panels enables users to adjust the two-story space with integrated technology to new configurations in minutes. Users can scale the space for the intimacy of small group meetings, or the space and seating required for larger gatherings. The yellow-gold hued panels have whiteboard installed on their lower sections and the space features a large integrated video screen for group communication. The Zone is a cost-effective idea to outfit the CTE with multiple spaces in one flexible, adaptable room vs. expensive additions of seldom-used rooms.

We made the Innovation Zone directly accessible from the STEM lab to facilitate its use for STEM projects, robotics competitions, and engineering exhibits. The STEM lab itself includes a series of large experiential learning spaces and a maker space equipped with tech, including 3D printers and fume hoods.

Today, high school students attend GCI several hours a day, hone skills and gain exposure to entrepreneurial, technical, and collaborative aspects of work. GCI is poised to complete its mission of equipping students with the tools and collaborative skills they need to succeed. Denise Belt, Genesee Intermediate School District’s executive director CTE, says of GCI: “The professional environment makes students feel like they are ready to go into the workplace. I think every school district would want to be able to offer these types of spaces and give these types of opportunities to their students.”

While Genesee Career Institute is now operational, our work on the Innovation Zone continues. We’ve asked the client to document how students use the zone, so we can continue to adjust and refine the details in the concept. Our research on the Innovation Zone is ongoing.

The Innovation Zone at Genesee Career Institute in Flint, Michigan transforms space with ease and utility. Photography by Justin McConachie.

While this Swiss Army Knife room was developed for specifically for Genesee, I see it as a concept that can meet the needs of educational institutions that are increasingly called upon to do increasingly to lay the path from young people to a future in the skilled workforce.

In our next installment, we’ll look at unique design challenges at the CTE and smart ways of overcoming them.

  • Theo  Pappas

    Theo has planned and designed a multitude of successful and award-winning projects throughout his 30-year career, and he’s truly passionate regarding design for education.

    Contact Theo
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